By Brian Keepers
Every Thursday afternoon I meet with a group of three other guys—one pastor and two seminary professors. It’s a sacred time and space, where we are all committed to fully showing up and not hiding and being willing to call each other out of hiding when we do. I love these guys. It is one of the key constellations of friendships in my life where I am learning vulnerability and courage.
A couple weeks ago I found myself in a place of fatigue, and in our time together I allowed myself to be seen, my heart disclosed, in a way that felt especially raw and vulnerable. I cast my pearls before these brothers, and they received them with such care and grace, nodding with compassion, patiently giving me the space I needed while suspending judgment.
But for the next several days, I was sick with what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.” Was I too vulnerable? Did I expose too much? What will these guys think of me now? In my anxiety I shot off a few rounds of texts like cellular fig leaves, doing my best to sew together some covering for the shame I was feeling and spin things in a more noble light.
In Genesis chapter 3, after Adam and Eve rebel against God, we’re told that their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked and for the first time felt shame. Walter Brueggemann points out that this is less about sex and more about vulnerability, anxiety and the breakdown of trust. Adam and Eve became aware of their vulnerability and, rather than embrace it, they were ashamed and sought to deny it by covering it up.
And then the Lord comes sauntering through the Garden at the first whisper of the evening breeze, and the man and woman run and hide among the trees. God calls out to them, “Where are you?” and Adam replies: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10).
Adam says he was afraid because he was naked. Not because he had disobeyed God or was wrenched with remorse for what he’d done. Adam hides from God’s presence because he doesn’t want to be seen in his vulnerability. He can’t even give a thought to his need to take personal responsibility and repent—that’s the furthest thing from his mind. All he can think about is the shame he feels for feeling so exposed.
Here’s what so deeply resonated with me: when I left my time with my friends that afternoon, all I could think about was the shame I felt from allowing these brothers to see my most vulnerable self. Entangled in that vulnerability was also my own sin and brokenness, no doubt. But I couldn’t own that part, couldn’t move to a place of confession, because my shame had me stuck in fear of what these friends would think of me, how they would see me now.
Tim Suttle, pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kansas, makes an excellent point: we don’t find a way to become more vulnerable; we are vulnerable. This is what it means to be creatures and not the Creator. You could even say vulnerability is the pattern of God’s own movement in the world—from creation to incarnation. The question then is this: how will we handle our vulnerability? Will we mask it, numb it, deny it, do everything in our power to cover and hide it? Or will we have the courage to embrace it without shame.
The first step in embracing vulnerability is to name the shame we feel around it. There’s power in naming. Genesis tells us that too. Shame thrives in secrecy, and it loses its hold on us when we dare to give it voice.
So that’s what I did this last Thursday, when I met once again with my friends. I named the shame, and was able to own my brokenness not just regarding what I shared a couple weeks earlier, but even more so, in my anxious scrambling to cover up my vulnerability.
It was a beautiful moment of grace. Like God covering Adam and Eve with garments of grace (being covered by God’s grace in our shame is a world of difference from our own futile efforts to “cover up” our shame). One of my friends said to me, “Do you want to know how I see you? Especially after what you just shared today, I feel safer around you. I see you as a stronger leader, a more beautiful human being.”
I’m so grateful for these friends, for a kind of authentic community where I can show up not as I want to be seen but as I really am. A community that reminds me time and again of the truth of my baptism: that I don’t have to hide because I have been clothed in Christ Jesus.
This whole experience brought to mind these words of Henri Nouwen from his book In the Name of Jesus, one of my favorite leadership books of all time:
I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we can accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.